The renaissance of the Pakistani film industry has not only drawn local audiences back to theaters but also seen fresh money and talent being pumped into new projects over the past couple of years. This past weekend, the industry took a major step on the international stage as several films from the “new-age revival” Pakistani cinema were screened in New York City as part of the country’s first-ever film festival.
Funded by the government, the two-day Pakistan Film Festival (PFF) was the brainchild of Pakistan's permanent representative for United Nations (UN) Dr Maleeha Lodhi and kicked off amidst much hype and anticipation with a red carpet ceremony at the United Nations headquarters on the evening of December 2, 2016.
The guest list included heavyweights of the Pakistani showbiz industry such as Mahira Khan, Mawra Hocane, Nabeel Qureshi, Saba Qamar, Wajahat Rauf, Yasir Hussain, Sheheryar Munawar, Asim Raza, Tooba Siddiqui, Adeel Hussain, Sanam Saeed, Jerjees Seja, Afia Serena Nathaniel, Mehreen Jabbar, veteran actress Sabiha Khanum.
UN Deputy Secretary General Jan Eliasson, the chief guest of event, lauded the stars and organisers: “You have given life to this building. You have already conquered Pakistan, now you will conquer New York.”
The festival was yet another feather in Lodhi’s cap, who has been at the forefront of several initiatives aimed at promoting a softer image of Pakistan globally. On Pakistan Day this year, she organised a Sufi night with musical maestro Rahat Fateh Ali Khan and was also the force behind the Exhibition of Contemporary Art from Pakistan at the UN earlier.
"You have given life to this building. You have already conquered Pakistan, now you will conquer New York"
In her welcome address last Friday, Lodhi said the films being screened as part of the festival will portray the new genre of artists and film-makers that have been upping the ante with bold subject matters and the use of digital technology.
“Art, it is rightly said, transcends borders and connects people from different backgrounds and nations and unites all civilisations and cultures in a collective celebration of our emotional lives," Lodhi said, adding that the UN, which embodies and represents the finest examples of our shared humanity was the perfect platform to launch the event.
The red carpet event was followed by two days of film screenings at the Asia Society, which included latest releases Dobara Phir Say and Lahore Say Aagey, along with Actor in law; Pakistan’s Oscar nomination Mahe Meer, Oscar award-winner Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy's animated film 3 Bahadur; Dukhtar; Dance Kahani and Ho Mann Jahan.
Hocane, who was selected as one of the country's UN youth representatives – and had flown in from Pakistan for the event – said she felt deliriously happy at being given the opportunity to represent her country on a global stage. “We have such a rich culture and we can surely provide great entertainment. That's what PFF is going to achieve for us,” she said.
Munawar (Ho Mann Jahan actor) added that events like these were a window of opportunity to present local stories and talent to global audiences .
Despite its best intentions of being a launch pad for Pakistani talent, the festival had its fair share of logistical hiccups. For example, tickets for film screenings had to be booked by calling in or emailing instead of the usual process of being purchased online with tickets of the newer releases being sold out very early in the process.
According to an audience member Ayesha Tariq Khan, seeing relatable stories from Pakistan was heartwarming but the festival would have drawn a much larger audience if it was better marketed and managed. Khan also added that including a wider range of artists in addition to the mainstream names would also be a welcome addition for the festival in the coming years.
Another audience member Fawzia Naqvi called the festival “a fantastic initiative with an odd execution.” Naqvi pointed out that the films had been brought to New York to showcase Pakistani talent to the world but the audience was predominantly of Pakistani origin, who already enjoys access to these films. She added that it was a lost opportunity that beautifully crafted films like Mahe Meer were not viewed by more Americans.
Despite its best intentions of being a launch pad for Pakistani talent, the festival had its fair share of logistical hiccups.
However, there were some exceptions. Martin H Kreiger, who attended one of the screenings with a Pakistani friend, said he thoroughly enjoyed the cinematic works on display. “The films had the right amount of comedy, drama build-up and emotion — things that even Hollywood is too scared to do now,” he said, adding that he hoped for these films to be distributed to a wider American audience. “The films played on universal themes of family, love and friendship, which are as relatable to a Jewish American living in Brooklyn as they are to a Pakistani or someone who grew up in a large Italian family,” he said.
While there is no doubt that the film festival helped Pakistan put its best foot forward and provided a boost of confidence to the local talent, one hopes that if continued in the coming years, it will draw a wider and more diverse audience.
The writer is a freelance journalist based in New York City.